Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: III.XXXIII

Frontispiece of the King James Bible, 1611


If the Bible is to be our guide in understanding the nature of the Kingdom of God, then we need to be certain what it is that makes up the Bible. There has never been absolute agreement about this among all Christians. Books such as 1, 2, 3, or 4 Maccabees, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of James, the Revelation of John, and any number of other books have at times been included or excluded from the canon. Hobbes has his own approach to this form of biblical criticism which ties into his earlier discussions of the civil state:

By the Books of Holy Scripture are understood those which ought to be the canon… of Christian life. And because all rules of life which men are in conscience bound to observe are laws, the question of the Scripture is the question of what is law throughout all Christendom, both natural and civil. For though it be not determined in Scripture what laws every Christian king shall constitute in his own dominions, yet it is determined what laws he shall not constitute. (XXXIII.1)

Quite reasonably, this only applies to Christian nations. As Hobbes has already said, the sovereign is to determine what religion and what religious books are to be taught in his nation. For Hobbes personally, this means that

I can acknowledge no other books of the Old Testament to be Holy Scripture but those which have been commanded to be acknowledged for such by the authority of the Church of England. (XXXIII.1)

There is no disagreement between Protestants and Catholics about the New Testament (though there was some discussion about the subject among the church fathers); and for Hobbes there is no disagreement about the Old Testament now that the sovereign has spoken.

We need not go into Hobbes’s extended discussion of the authority of each book. Once we have the reason he defends the books he defends—because his sovereign has established the canon he is to follow—we really have enough to work with. (Which isn’t to say that Hobbes’s arguments aren’t interesting, they’re just too far beyond my expertise to discuss in detail.) This appeal to the authority of the Church of England wasn’t worth much in Hobbes’s day, and is functionally without value in our own. Specifically: to the best of my knowledge, the modern Church of England claims little in the way of final authority over anything, let alone the Word of God; the modern Roman Catholic Church of course grants no final authority to the Church of England; and other modern Protestants likewise deny the supremacy of Hobbes’s old church. All of which to say that if this is the reason Hobbes is pursuing his apologetic, at the end of the day his claim that “it is not the writer, but the authority of the church, that maketh a book canonical” has to be something of a dead letter in Hobbes’s specific meaning (XXXIII.20).

His more general meaning, on the other hand, is worthy of attention because it brings us back to the discussion of the civil state. At some point, all believers (and unbelievers) have to ask: do I think the Bible is truly the Word of God or not? This question, Hobbes tells us, is important enough but not the one that truly matters. Eventually we will see that some parts of the Bible accord with what we know through the use of natural reason, while other parts involve ideas and laws that we would never come to through the use of reason alone. Those that agree with natural reason there is no cause to dispute, the question comes when we look at the rules that come from above reason: “The question truly stated is: By what authority they are made law?” (XXXIII.21). Christians will say that the precepts of Scripture are binding because they are given by God—and that’s true of course, but it’s also only so authoritatively in the minds of Christians. This in turn brings us back to Hobbes’s previous rejection of personal experience. How can these rules be binding on the whole society, including those who have not had the personal experience—”to whom God hath not supernaturally revealed that they are his” (XXXIII.24)? As we should know by now, the laws of scripture which are known only by revelation become laws for all when they are embraced by the authority of the sovereign of the state. Anything else is appeal to personal experience and sentiment, and that is no useful foundation for the public regulation:

For if every man should be obliged to take for God’s law what particular men, on pretence of private inspiration or revelation, should obtrude upon him… it were impossible that any divine law should be acknowledged. (XXXIII.24)

Our instinct is to separate the church out from the state and put the state in charge of civil law and the church in charge of the declaration of God’s law, if not its enforcement. Hobbes, however, gives us a different set of options. If we hold consistently to his political philosophy, then we will have two choices regarding the place of scripture in civil society:

1) There is no “Christian commonwealth” in this world, “and therefore the Scriptures are not made laws by the universal church;”
2) There is a “Christian commonwealth” in this world, and therefore “all Christian monarchs and states are private persons, and subject to be judged, deposed, and punished by a universal sovereign of all Christendom” (XXXIII.24).

This leads us to the real question we should be asking about the Kingdom of God: is it a temporal kingdom right now under one leader who has the authority to punish Christians of any rank or station in any Christian nation? Or are the governments of the Christian nations of the world the legitimate and sovereign governments with no higher authority? To find our answer, Hobbes says we need to dig deeper into the nature of the Kingdom of God, which is where the next post will pick up.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

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